Tapestry: The good tourist and the art of travel


I have been travelling since I was a child. My mother, daughter of a diplomat, made sure travelling was part and parcel of our lives. Having lived abroad through most of her formative years, she believes in the importance of being worldly.

Now that I’m able to travel on my own, I’m beginning to carve my own travelling style. I’m not adventurous enough to backpack and rough it out, although I’ve always idealised the thought. Regardless, I love to get “lost”, being on my feet and roaming about.

But lately, I’ve become more aware of the impact of tourism and the behaviour of tourists. When I was travelling with my mother to poorer states, it usually didn't take her long to cave in and start giving money to street children or beggars. But once your purse is out, you are caught in a swarm and find yourselves harassed.

My family are also tippers, and so I’ve started a habit of tipping when I can afford it. Tipping became a contested issue between my partner and me as he sees value not in monetary transaction but in conversational exchanges with the locals.

I’ve started to also reflect on ourselves as the visited country and people. How others would see us as “the exotic” and marvel at buildings that are so banal to us. Some tourists behaving badly abroad have earned themselves a reputation like the Ugly American or Australians in Bali. This minority has given honest travellers a bad name but the stigma still sticks.

But I wonder if it’s our fault for allowing them to behave that way. Asians are usually mild-mannered and we avoid conflict as much as we can. We tend to be extra accommodating to Westerners but I wonder if this behaviour signifies a green light for them to trample all over us. Because we don’t often stand up for ourselves, it takes a major event like Mount Kinabalu to make us speak up against unwelcome behaviours. If we were more assertive on our rules from the get-go, I wonder if we could have avoided such incidents.

Perhaps because of the many stories of ugly tourists, I try to be conscious of how I act in other people’s countries. In Southeast Asian countries, I easily blend in and I don’t stand out too much, but being in Kerala was the first in a long time I stood out like a sore thumb. Here, I was clearly a tourist. There have been many cases of abuse against women travellers in India that got me slightly paranoid. Walking back to the hotel after dinner made me realise how “male” Kochi (if not India) was. Men would just gather at open fields or by the road sides chatting with their friends. There were literally no women in sight.

The slow boat on the Allepey. Filepic
The slow boat on the Alleppey. Filepic

We were in Kochi recently and it was the monsoon season which means low season for tourists. We enjoyed the quietness of Kochi and it seemed as if we had more time to talk to the locals. We were well treated everywhere we went except for the occasional battles with aggressive tuk-tuk drivers.

After a few of these encounters, I can’t help but to reflect. Average tourists like ourselves who try to balance experience and comfort means being able to spend just a little bit more than backpackers. But because we come from a developing country, we do not have as much spending power as the Arabs or the new Chinese, or Westerners whose dollars and pounds weigh much more. So we try to save where we can by walking or being more guarded when shopping.

In the pits of my stomach, I felt guilty. I felt guilty that I even try to haggle when obviously I’m the one with the purchasing power. I felt guilty that even for 50 or 100 rupees, we didn’t want to use their services, when they’ve worked so hard. But as my partner reminded me, for the locals, it’s part and parcel of life.

As we cruised along the backwaters of Alleppey, I looked out at an uncle reading a newspaper on his front porch, and an old fisherman in his rickety boat casting his net. I wonder what goes through their heads as they look back at us who paid a lot of money just to take a sneak peek of their everyday life – the banality of the Alleppey backwaters.

Alain de Botton wrote in The Art Of Travel: “Among all the places we go to but don’t look at properly or which leave us indifferent, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that overwhelms us and forces us to take heed.

They possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty.” This moment for me was when I realised I was able to really look at the faces I spoke to.

Perhaps my only regret was not having a better grasp of Hindi and Tamil films, of which I learned, could be useful as conversational pieces in our attempt to find a connection with complete strangers in passing.

Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society(ies).

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